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Divine Command Theory

The divine command theory is the view that moral actions are those which conform to God's will. Charity, for example, is morally proper because God endorses it, and murder is wrong because God condemns it. There are both normative and metaethical versions of this theory. The normative version is proposes a test for determining whether any action is right or wrong: if it conforms to God's will, it is morally permissible, if it does not, then it is impermissible. As a normative theory, the divine command theory is difficult to maintain given the epistemological problems of accessing the will of God. The metaethical version simply makes the factual claim that God's will is the foundation of morality. Here, the content of God's will does not have to be explored.

As a metaethical theory, there are three ways that the divine command theory can be understood. The weakest version claims only that, within certain religious communities, the meaning of the statement, "charity is good," is that God wills us to be charitable. This version has only limited implications. Although it may represent the views of a particular religious group, it has no bearing on what those outside that group mean by the statement "charity is good." A stronger version of the divine command theory concedes that charity is morally good in and of itself, but that God's will provides us with the motivation to be charitable. On this view, only the religious believer has the motivation to be moral. Theoretically, unbelievers could also act morally, but it would only be by accident since unbelievers would lack the motivation for consistent moral behavior. The strongest version of the divine command theory states that morality is a creation of God's will. According to this view, charity is good because God has willed that charity is good. The claim here is not about what particular communities mean by the word "good" or what motivations people have to be good. Instead, the claim is that moral conduct is identical to the conduct which God commands of us. This final version of the divine command theory is the most controversial, and has been criticized from several angles.

 

General Criticisms

During the Enlightenment, the divine command theory fell under attack from two distinct camps. One group argued that moral standards, like mathematical truths, are eternal and fixed in the nature of universe. Philosophers such as Samuel Clarke argued that moral values can be intuitively perceived and, again, like mathematical truths, can be understood by any rational being. Since God is a rational being, then God, too, endorses these eternal standards of morality. However, God's mere acceptance of moral standards in no way creates them, and in that sense is no different than a human's acceptance of moral standards. A second group argued that moral standards are fundamentally human-based, and are neither fixed in the nature of the universe, nor in the will of God. For example, Thomas Hobbes argued that moral standards are necessary human conventions which keep us out of a perpetual state of war. Others, such as Hume and Mill, argued that they are based on human instinct. In either case, God's will is irrelevant to ethical standards.

A more recent times, the divine command theory has been attacked on two principle grounds. First, if morality is a dictate of God's will, then it is conceivable that God could choose to reverse the present state of morality and thus make evil actions moral. That is, God could make murder or stealing morally permissible if he chose. The theologian's reply to this possibility is that God would not reverse the moral standards he has created since God himself is infinitely good, and God would not will anything which is contrary to his own good nature. This reply, however, leads to the second problem with the divine command theory. If moral goodness is merely a creation of God's will, then the phrase "God is good" becomes meaningless. For, by definition, "God is good" would simply mean that God's nature is in accord with what he wills. Since there are no pre-existing moral restrictions to what God can will, then even if God was malicious, he would be good. Clearly, this makes nonsense of the notion of goodness.

According to this theory what actually makes an action right is that God wills it to be done. In other word's, whatever God says goes.

There are three main versions of the theory:

         Weakest Version: Godís commands are applicable within the context of specific religious communities (i.e. Certain Christians might say homosexuality is wrong). Clearly this command has limited application to those outside the group.

         Stronger Version: Moral behaviour is good in and of itself and so we should live in certain ways because God wills it (i.e. God wills the 'good' because it is good. However, this means only religious believers need worry about moral accountability.

Strongest Version: Moral behaviour is good because it is willed by God.